Federal funding to boost Virginia Tech, Commonwealth Cyber Initiative wireless network security projects | Virginia Tech News

The Public Wireless Supply Chain Innovation Fund showcased two funded projects to researchers from Virginia Tech, the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative (CCI), and Booz Allen Hamilton this week.

A part of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and funded by the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022, the Innovation Fund is responsible for awarding $1.5 billion to support development of open and interoperable networks. Open radio access networks (O-RAN) promise to boost competition in a market dominated by a few players, spur innovation, and create jobs.

“What we’re focused on is leveraging that billion and a half dollars that we have to provide to the ecosystem so that we can really drive that innovation and hopefully drive the U.S. ecosystem to try and regain leadership [in wireless networks] and create supply chain diversity,” said Amanda Toman, director of the NTIA’s Public Wireless Supply Chain Innovation Fund.

Industry and academia collaborations such as the newly funded projects with Virginia Tech, CCI, and Booz Allen are examples of partnerships that will tackle challenges and move O-RAN to commercial adoption.

“One common theme that really resonates with me at the Innovation Fund is the need to work with industry and the ecosystem,” Toman said at the Dec. 18 event hosted by CCI at the Virginia Tech Research Center — Arlington.

The wireless network community is tackling the challenges of how to incorporate artificial intelligence and machine learning into secure, widespread wireless networks. 

Funded projects

Virginia Tech’s Learning-Based O-RAN Testing project will leverage a neural network to develop a unified approach to O-RAN testing, focusing on developing common baselines for key performance metrics. 

Lingjia Liu, professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of Wireless@Virginia Tech, will lead the project. The Virginia Tech team includes Jeff Reed, Willis G. Worcester Professor of electrical and computer engineering and CCI chief technology officer; Harpreet S. Dhillon, electrical and computer engineering professor; as well as Lizhong Zheng, Massachusetts Institute of Technology electrical and computer science professor.

Booz Allen’s Enhancing O-RAN Systems Against Sophisticated Attacks project will identify test methods that can advance state-of-the-art Open RAN security and defend open networks against sophisticated threats.

The project is led by Booz Allen’s Chris Christou, senior vice president for the Chief Technology Office, and includes Jennifer Congdon, director for 5G/NextG PMO and Partnerships, and Joseph Bull, director and principal investigator.

In addition, the Booz Allen project features CCI researchers based at Virginia Tech: CCI Research Director Eric Burger; David Simpson, Pamplin Business College Professor in Leadership and Cybersecurity; and Nishith Tripathi, research associate professor, electrical and computer engineering.

The CCI xG Testbed, an advanced test bed based on open standards, is being used in all the projects.

Industry and academia collaboration

Collaborations across government, industry, and academia are necessary to ensure technological advances and for job creation. 

“There is also an aspect of workforce development that is critical for industry and where, of course, academia has a key role in producing the professionals who have the skill set required by new trends like Open RAN,” said Luiz DaSilva, CCI executive director. 

Congdon describes the collaboration as a good fit for the private sector. “Universities … are building the next generation of the workforce and that’s a natural partnership for us on the private side to engage with early,” she said.

The mix of for-profit companies and universities will help solve some of the tough challenges becuase it brings key players to the table. “I really like this program because it brings people together to sit down and talk,” Liu said. 

The result could be transformative for the United States.

“We’re really excited to be able to contribute to the overall initiatives that NTIA is leading today, not only because from a technology perspective we see the potential transformative impact that could have on the industry, but also for our nation as a whole, to be able to open up that ecosystem and really help us advance our technology base,” Christou said.

With only two rounds of funding and many more to go, the Innovation Fund has attracted international attention.

“I think the eyes of the world are on us, and private and public organizations everywhere are looking at what this program accomplishes,” DaSilva said.